Can coronavirus spread through the air?

Rebecca Israel, MS & Charles Li, MD

May 07, 2020

  • COVID-19 is spread from person to person.

  • The virus spread in a restaurant in the path of the air conditioner.

  • A building’s air conditioning can spread virus droplets.

COVID-19 & Dining Out

Cities have begun to re-open their businesses in hopes of improving the economy and restoring a sense of normalcy. Advisory boards are discussing rules and regulations for this transitional period. These rules will be crucial in avoiding a second wave of infections and growing the death toll.

A key consideration of these advisory boards is the spread of the virus. A new study published on the CDC website details how air conditioning and social distance can transmit the virus.

Coronavirus cases traced back to a restaurant

On January 23, 2020, a family of four returned home from Wuhan to Guangzhou, China. The next day, they went to grab lunch at a local restaurant. The restaurant had a family-style layout with big tables that seated multiple parties at once.

Later that same day, one of the four family members started feeling feverish and developed a nasty cough. They went to the hospital and were confirmed to have COVID-19.

Within the next two weeks, nine other people who ate lunch at that exact restaurant were confirmed to have COVID-19. Researchers believe the nine additional COVID-19 patients were exposed to COVID-19 at the restaurant.

Source: Emerging Infectious Diseases

COVID-19 from Dining Out#Cases

# COVID-19 Cases

10

8

6

4

2

0

10 Days After
# New COVID-19 Cases10

0

5

10

Days after Dining Out

The ten COVID-19 patients were all in the restaurant at the same time for about an hour. They sat at tables in a row, with the family who traveled from Wuhan at the middle table, table-B.

The air conditioning vent was located above table-C. The air traveled back and forth above the tables.

COVID-19 & Dining Out

Does this mean the virus is airborne?

No, it doesn’t. The most likely cause of this outbreak was droplet transmission because no one else in the restaurant got it, including staff. The only infected people were within the air’s path.

As we know, coronavirus is spread from person-to-person by droplet transmission. Large droplets can travel short distances in the air for a short time. Researchers believe that strong air conditioning in the restaurant could have expanded the droplet spread to the nearby tables.

This does not mean that the virus lived in the air. Researchers took samples of the ventilation system, which came back negative for COVID-19. This suggests that the virus did not travel far with the air or lived for very long.

This study only examined a few people at one restaurant in China. We can not generalize these findings to everyone in every restaurant around the world. However, we can learn from its findings when considering how to stay safe in public spaces as cities start to reopen.

How can I protect myself against COVID-19?

The key factor in this study was the direction of the airflow. A powerful air conditioner can carry the droplets of an infected person.

To prevent the spread of COVID-19 in restaurants and other indoor spaces, the researchers recommend following established social distancing measures and avoiding the path of airflow.

Restaurants should implement temperature-monitoring surveillance, increase the distance between tables, and improve ventilation.

Dining out during a pandemic
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